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SPEAKING OF WIL OKECHO

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I never asked Wil, if he was called after William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery agitator of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. But then, Wilberforce is a common first name in his native Uganda. In my brief association with the population of Uganda, I have known two Wilberforces.

Wilberforce Okecho was a 200 metre runner, a Ugandan, a student at the college I attended and my friend. I’d never had a friend other than white people before. Wil was a novelty.

His proper full name was Wilberforce, but everyone called him Wil. Our college paths crossed reluctantly, trajectories coinciding only in whole year group lectures. He was in secondary education; I was in primary. We met occasionally, chatted briefly, respected each other, but didn’t socialise. Overall, Wil didn’t socialise. He couldn’t afford to socialise. However, he competed with the college athletics team, one of the earliest black men to do so. We were an all men college.

I enjoyed being occasionally in the company of this tall young man with his ready smile and willing manner. He was a year or two older than the rest of us. It had taken some effort from him, some time, to get to the point of qualifying for college. He revealed little of his background, except that he was from Uganda and was the product of a mission school. At that time, intercontinental travel was a rare and tedious commodity. As he couldn’t go home for Christmas, I invited him to my family home. I did check with my mother first. Dad wouldn’t have had an opinion.

My mother was the most open-minded of people. She instigated our international relationships through church connections. As an eight-or-nine-year-old, I had learned a great deal about international relationships when we hosted a German prisoner of war in our home soon after Father had arrived home from the RAF. Dad had been repairing aircraft, sending therm back to indiscriminately bomb Germany by night. I learned a great deal — including a smattering of the German language from the German prisoner of war, Walther Rehm from Ulm am Donau in Bavaria.

Wil came to stay with my family for Christmas. Dad smiled at this black man in his house. Very little ruffled Dad, except when the annual stock-taking was poor in the shop. Mum loved being a host. I was sure she would. She took to Wil like the Mother she was. Particularly, she was fascinated by the white palms of his hands. Wil smiled and pointed out that the soles of his feet were just as white. She chose not to check.

More importantly, Wil was prepared to reveal to us much more than I already knew about his life in Uganda. He had been educated by sitting in the back of the classroom where his nephews attended. Their father was a tribal chief and it was Wil’s job take them to school and return them home. Staying in the classroom for lessons until the end of school was a privilege. Then, the Christian monks of the religious school had taken Wil in hand and ultimately sponsored him to attend college in York like me. He was looking forward to educating poor village children on his return.

I think Wil enjoyed eating in our house, Mum was a good cook and dealt food in generous portions. We ate well. On Christmas Day, we ate with our neighbours from the upstairs flat. We lived in a vast, old Georgian house. I think formal Charlie from upstairs, conventional Audrey, his wife and their two sensitive little girls were rather surprised to be sitting at table with a black man. But Wil was gentle, always smiling, never controversial. He was particularly good with Ann who was spina bifida and just learning to walk at five years old. The atmosphere around the table was convivial and harmonious.

Wil and I went to church together, Normally I sang in the choir, but sat in the body of the church with him for communion. Our small rural town was very much tied to its aristocratic legacy. The castle dominated. The Duke was the main landowner and principle employer. He was also at that time, the only person allowed to read the lesson in church, apart from the priest. Outside church, it was not unusual to touch the forelock as the duke left, or for ladies to make a small curtsey. In church, although I was well known — significant years a choir-boy, subsequently signing tenor, confirmed in the church by the bishop — we were stared at. Only white people lived in our part of the world. No-one was impolite, but we were stared at and made to feel rather uncomfortable. Of course, in 1957, people down south were just beginning to get used to the Windrush generation and its descendants. We lived in the rugged, rural north, almost into Scotland. This was long before the arrival of the Chinese restaurant in town. There was no Pizza parlour, no curry house. The nearest my town had got to having a foreign invasion was Enrico and Lena at the ice-cream parlour, second generation British, born out of Italian extraction and Mr Siegle (locally known as Sea Gull) who ran the pork butcher’s shop and who had been quickly interned on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. 

On Boxing Day, Wil and I walked through town. He shivered. Spending time in Uganda many years later, in the heat, among the mosquitoes, and the sun-burnt patch on my head, I understood why he shivered. At least he had good sustaining food inside him rather than matoke. I hated the matoke I had when staying in the bungalow on the Mengo Hospital site. At least in England matoke wasn’t my staple diet. During Wil’s shivering episode, we came to the display window of the local newspaper where we stopped. Wil was interested in the photos on display, photos related to items in last week’s paper. In our small market town, most news had some connection or other with agriculture. Best beef steer at the market this week. A lamb born very early in the season.  Many photographs were of the Young Farmers Club, which in our town substituted for the Young Conservatives. It was here, that an acquaintance, a man I thought I respected, sidled up to me and muttered in my ear, ‘Why have you brought that black bastard to our town,' before quickly sidling away again. It was as well that he had sidled away again. I might not have hit him, although I felt like doing so. I would certainly have said something that I might later forget. As it had been a whisper, Wil heard nothing of what had been said. But he was acute enough to recognise antagonistic body language when he saw it.

It may have been that moment — a brief moment of insight and learning — which cemented in my mind a feeling for follow humans who were not privileged white like me or who were highly favoured within all peoples by having been born a British citizen.

That was not something I had felt serving in the RAF among Greeks, Turks, Iraqis, Bahrainis, Omanis or citizens of Aden. There had been something inculcated in me by my family’s relationship with a German prisoner of war in 1945 and 1956. A great deal had been taught by Walther Rehm, not only how to count in German, (only to ten, up to twenty came much later), not only to sing Silent Night in its native German but to begin to understand how he and my father could bond. Dad was recently back from the RAF where he had been mending broken bombers to sent them back to bomb Germany again. (1307 words)

It was something that welled up in me many, may years later when local children attending the school where I was headteacher, started calling the three children of an Ethiopian refugee family ‘Paki’. I failed miserably to get white pupils to understand why ‘Paki’ was an insult at so many levels. The pupils actually liked the Ethiopian children. ‘Paki’ carried no overtones of insult or hurt for them. The Ethiopians, two girls and a boy, soon showed their mettle by winning cross-country races for the school. It didn’t stop the ignorant and the ignorant innocents calling them ‘Paki’. Strange that the boy from the Pakistani run ‘Indian’ restaurant was not called Paki.

We tried as hard as possible to make Wil feel at home. It snowed that Christmas. Not on Christmas Day but before Wil and I went back to college. He was fascinated by the snow. He had never seen snow before. There were small Christmas presents. A life-long Christian, educated in a Christian mission school, attending a Church of England college, he wasn’t sure why everyone got gifts on 25th December. 

At conversation over meals, Wil told us about Uganda. About his uncle, a tribal chief, whose children had to be educated, about his duty to escort his uncle’s children to and from the mission school a few miles away. Once there, Wil was allowed to stay at the back of the classroom, although his family were paying no fees and he had no school uniform and no books. Ultimately the teacher-monks found sponsorship to send Wil to England to quality to be a teacher.

It was Wil who had deep political and economic discussion with my mother. He had concerns about the political situation in Uganda and concerns about who wielded power in what way. He worried about which foreign country was investing money in Uganda, gaining influence, a concern in particular about Chinese influence. Uganda and its neighbours had assets China was interested in and China was funding a railway to capitalise on those assets. He spoke about the wonderful new dam and hydro-electric power station being built in Jinja. It would provide electricity for all of Uganda and perhaps other countries. Today, there are four hydro-electric power stations across the White Nile leading from Lake Victoria. I had heard about the power station in Jinja. A school friend’s father had been a contracted engineer helping to build Natabaale Power Station at the Owen Falls dam.

Wil was impressed with the school I had attended, a school built on classic public school lines, battlemented quadrangle with Latin inscription carved on the stones of the walls. NISI DOMINUS AEDIFICAVERIT DOMUM, IN VANUM LABORAVERUNT QUI AEDIFICANT EAM.Unless the Lord build the house, they that labour, labour in vain, it read in English translation. Most of the boys who attended had no idea what the Latin meant. There was a chapel-like school hall with stained glass windows, a tiered lecture theatre, a school where years later I became deputy head. Wil may have been impressed. He was an impressive character.

Our trajectory through the rest of college days went in different directions. We studied different education sectors. We studied different subjects. We both passed end of course examinations. We were qualified teachers under the English education system. I began teaching on industrial Tyneside, among coal-mines and ship-yards, none of which survive today. He went back to Uganda.

We corresponded briefly. His letters told of his joy at being able to teach in his native Uganda, how he took the ferry across Lake Victoria to his school. Then his letters stopped. In a previous article where Wil was mentioned I wrote,

He had retuned to his uncle’s tribal area, near Lake Victoria. The family were Christians. Idi Amin ruled the country. Many Christians, including teachers, disappeared. Wil was a teacher.’

Years later, visiting Uganda, I tried to trace him without success. I would have liked to be his friend still.  (1983 words)


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